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The tabernacle — God’s presence on earth

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Every part of a well-designed church is deliberately planned to bring glory to God — the shape, the artwork, the liturgical furnishings and everything in between. Architects and artists since the beginning of Christianity have used brick and mortar, paint and glass to explain theological truths and salvation history. Yet oftentimes, the significance and symbolism of and within churches is overlooked. This series aims to explain the art and architecture of diocesan churches, so that the faithful can better appreciate the beauty around them.

In the Old Testament, the Ark of the Covenant was the place God physically dwelt on earth. When not being carried with the Israelites, the chest rested within the tabernacle. God gave the Israelites specific instructions on how to fashion the cloth tent, the ark and its furnishings.

In Exodus 25, God commanded Moses to, “make two cherubim of gold. … The cherubim shall spread out their wings above.” The tabernacle at Holy Trinity Church in Gainesville has golden cherubim on and around it, echoing God’s words to the chosen people.

An oil lamp burned continuously outside of the holy of holies — the most sacred room within the tabernacle. Today, the sanctuary lamp, usually held in a red candleholder, burns as a sign of God’s presence over tabernacles in Catholic churches.

In the Christian tradition, tabernacles originally were intended to keep consecrated hosts secure and later taken to the sick and homebound. The Catechism of the Catholic Church specifies that tabernacles are to be located in a prominent place within a church, which in most parishes is near the altar.

The beauty of tabernacles highlights the significance of the Eucharist and the perfection of heaven. The catechism says a tabernacle “should be constructed in such a way that it emphasizes and manifests the truth of the real presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.”

The tabernacle at the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington is ornate, polished bronze with red trim. During the cathedral’s recent renovations, it was purchased from a closed church in Pennsylvania, said Father Paul F. deLadurantaye, who is in residence at the cathedral and serves as the diocesan secretary for catechetics and sacred liturgy.

The door of the tabernacle depicts the Annunciation. “Just as the Lord dwelt within Mary for nine months, so now He dwells in the tabernacle,” he said.

Above the tabernacle door is a dove, symbolizing the Holy Spirit through which Mary conceived Jesus and through which the bread and wine becomes the body and blood of Christ during Mass.

Does your parish have a beautiful tabernacle? Email or tweet us photos and a description at feedback@catholicherald.com or @acatholicherald.

Next week's topic: the baldachinno

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016